Execution of the King (21 January 1793)

After voting unanimously to find the King guilty, the deputies held a separate vote on his punishment. By a single vote, Louis was sentenced to death, "within twenty–four hours." Thus, on 21 January 1793, Louis Capet, formerly King of France was beheaded by the guillotine. For the first time in a thousand years, the French people were not ruled by a monarch. The passage below, from a letter by Philippe Pinel, describes the execution—and shows great admiration for Louis’s serenity in the face of a humiliating, public death.


I doubt not that the King's death will be described in different ways, as the partisan spirit dictates, and that garbled versions of this great event will appear in the newspapers and be noised abroad in such a manner as to distort the truth. As an eyewitness, who has always been far removed from the prejudice of parties, and who is but too well acquainted with the worthlessness of the aura popularis, I am going to give you a faithful account of what happened. I greatly regret that I was obliged to attend the execution bearing arms with the other citizens of the section and I write to you now with my heart filled with grief and my whole being stunned by the shock of this dreadful experience.

Louis, who, fortified by the principles of religion, seemed completely resigned to meet death, left his prison in the Temple about nine in the morning and was taken to the place of execution in the mayor's carriage with his confessor and two gendarmes, the curtains being drawn.

When he arrived at his destination he looked at the scaffold without flinching. The executioner at once proceeded to perform the customary rite by cutting off the King's hair which he put in his pocket. Louis then walked up onto the scaffold. The air was filled with the roll of numerous drums, seemingly intended to prevent the people from demanding grace. The drumbeats were hushed for a moment by a gesture from Louis himself, but at a signal from the adjutant of the General of the National Guard, they recommenced with such force that Louis's voice was drowned and it was only possible to catch a few stray words like "I forgive my enemies." At the same time he took a few steps round the fatal plank to which he was drawn by a feeling of horror natural to any man on the brink of death or, maybe, he conceived that the people might appeal for grace, for what man does not cling to hope even in his last moments?

The adjutant ordered the executioner to do his duty and in a trice Louis was fastened onto the deadly plank of the machine they call the guillotine and his head was cut off so quickly that he could hardly have suffered. This at least is a merit belonging to the murderous instrument which bears the name of the doctor who invented it. The executioner immediately lifted the head from the sack into which it fell automatically and displayed it to the people.

As soon as the execution had taken place, the expression on the faces of many spectators changed and, from having worn an air of somber consternation, they shifted to another mood and fell to crying, "Vive la Nation!" At least one can say this of the cavalry who witnessed the execution and who waved their helmets on the point of their sabers.

Some of the citizens followed suit, but a great number withdrew, their spirits racked with pain, to shed tears in the bosom of their families.

As decapitation could not be performed without spilling blood on the scaffold many persons hurried to the spot to dip the end of their handkerchief or a piece of paper in it, to have a reminder of this memorable event, for one need not have recourse to odious interpretations of such actions.

The body was carried to the cemetery of Ste. Marguerite, after the Commissioners of the Municipality, the Security Department and the Criminal Court had drawn up the minutes.

His son, the former Dauphin, in an access of childish simplicity, which attracted much sympathy, had in his last conversation with his father urgently begged to be allowed to go with him to the scaffold to ask the people to pardon him.

Source: Georges Pernoud and Sabine Flaissier, The French Revolution, translated by Richard Graves (New York: Capricorn Books, 1960), 201–3.